Photo by Bev Childress
Great athletes have great hips. That is a motto I use in my training programs with athletes, and it has proven time and again to be one of our most effective protocols for improving speed and explosiveness.
The Role of the Hips for All Athletes
I define an athlete as anyone performing a physical activity in pursuit of a certain goal or performance level. Examples range from traditional sports like basketball and football to tactical athletes, weekend warriors, or those who need to fulfill certain physical demands to perform at work, such as picking up heavy objects and moving them (stock clerks, warehouse workers, etc.)
While the role of the hips may vary depending on the situation, all of these athletes need hip mobility, stability, and at least some measure of explosiveness to perform at a high level.
In this article, we will focus primarily on improving mobility and explosiveness in the hips in three different capacities:
- Hips crucial role in any hinging movement in lifting, such as deadlifts, cleans and snatches.
- Explosive hip extension being key in the vertical leap and acceleration in sprinting.
- The primary role that hip flexors play in leg recovery mechanics when sprinting at top speed.
Let’s break down each of these components so you can learn how improving hip function will improve your performance.
Correcting the Hip Hinge
Proper hip hinge movement is vital to correctly performing lifts like the deadlift or cleans, and it sets the stage for more explosive hip extension. While the hip hinge is certainly not rocket science, it is one of the most abused and misinformed movement patterns I encounter with athletes.
The inability to flex the hips back while maintaining a strong core or spine is a major issue, and one that needs to be addressed before we tackle explosive hip extension.
The most common movement inconsistency we see is athletes lacking hamstring flexibility and/or lower back strength and thus compensating. The inability to flex the hips back while maintaining a strong core or spine is a major issue, and one that needs to be addressed before we tackle explosive hip extension.
Creating mobility and flexibility is crucial, and our best fix is simple and effective. I believe mastery of a skill-set is defined as the ability to take complex tasks and simplify them for maximum effectiveness, as opposed to reinventing the wheel. That being said, we use a simple PVC pipe or dowel to correct the hip hinge.
The athlete aligns the dowel along the spine, focusing on three points of contact:
- The back of the head
- The top of the spine just above the shoulder blades
- The tailbone
We then have the athlete perfect the hip hinge by performing the exercise with the dowel through a full range of motion, or as far as flexibility allows before breaking form, with emphasis on maintaining a straight spine and all three points of contact. Once we have established the correct movement pattern, then the athlete must practice, practice, practice.
When we feel the athlete can make the neuromuscular adjustment and perform a correct hip hinge, we then load the movement. We begin with basic kettlebell Romanian deadlift, and if he or she demonstrates competency there, we progress to kettlebell swings.
Swings are arguably our favorite exercise to teach the hip hinge at speed, which is crucial to athletic performance in exercises like the vertical leap. These types of movements include a powerful change of direction, or countermovement from loading to extension, just like the kettlebell swing.
When we feel the athlete can make the neuromuscular adjustment and perform a correct hip hinge, we then load the movement.
Creating Explosive Hip Extension
Once a correct hip hinge is established, explosive hip extension becomes a priority to improve speed or power. Hip extension is the ability to drive the hips forward from a hinged position at high velocity. While it is a simple motion, it is often overlooked as a component of training and one that we like to focus on to potentially break plateaus when other factors are already strong.
As always, we have to look for limiting factors before we begin more explosive training protocols. There is a host of potential weak links, ranging from weak glutes to tight hip flexors. Each requires a specific fix, but our favorite overall fix is a glute bridge. We always start without weight to teach athletes what full extension feels like, and then we use resistance to train the ability to engage the core and glutes for a more explosive motion.
Once the correct pattern is established, we progress to explosive movements that concentrate on hip extension, Depending on the athlete, we even attempt to isolate that movement. In those cases we like to use a kneeling pop-up drill to emphasize using the hips to generate power. By removing legs from the equation, this drill forces the hips to move quickly to achieve success.
Athletes will begin in a kneeling position, load the movement by sitting back and swinging the arms back, and then explosively change direction by swinging the arms forward and extending the hips. When performed correctly, the athlete will leave the ground and be able to land safely.
Strengthening the Hip Flexors
The hip flexors are tight in most populations, particularly people who spend a majority of their days sitting in classrooms or offices, practicing for two hours, and then resuming sitting the rest of the night. So, we have to understand that most athletes will have weak and inflexible hip flexors and this is a major inhibitor for speed and explosiveness.
As with the hip hinge and explosive hip extension, we address the limiting factors prior to training for speed. Primarily, our athletes need the ability to create separation between the hips in a running motion, driving one knee forward while the other fully extends back.
We have to understand that most athletes will have weak and inflexible hip flexors and this is a major inhibitor for speed and explosiveness.
At my gym, we address any limiting factors primarily in our dynamic warm up, which contains about fifteen different hip-related exercises. But one go-to drill to create results is the pulsed hip flexor stretch.
In a half-kneeling position, the athlete will push the anterior knee forward as far as possible. It is vital to keep the front foot flat and maintain correct posture while holding the stretch. The athlete will hold the stretch for a few seconds, return to a relaxed position, then repeat the stretch for four to eight reps.
To improve speed, there are countless drills we can use, but we prefer to keep it simple and effective and use the classic wall drive drill. The key to this drill, like any speed-related drill is attention to detail.
Athletes have to lean against the wall at a diagonal angle, pick one knee up so that the shin and body are parallel, and then explosively switch legs. The hip flexor’s role is key in forward knee drive, so it is important to maintain a tight core and body position to effectively perform the drill and create separation between the hips.
It’s All in the Hips: Putting It All Together
The hips and the associated movements and training are a complex issue that certainly can’t be fully addressed in one article. But I hope after reading this that you have some new insights on how to improve your own training programs and that you might even be able to break through some plateaus by incorporating more hip training. If so, we’d love to hear about it so make sure to leave us a comment below.